Curb Modric's influence and we can get a draw
ANALYSIS:Trapattoni’s men will stick to the usual tactics and we must hope they suffice
WHAT DO you think? How will we do? Variations on the same question have been put to me at least a thousand times by Irish fans over the last couple of weeks. Even on Thursday night, in the madness of the fan zone in the main square of Wroclaw, ex- League of Ireland referee Jim O’Neill from Waterford and his pals posed the big one to me again.
So, how will we do? Well, last Monday’s game against Hungary once again exposed the deficiencies of Giovanni Trapattoni’s team shape when up against a side that doesn’t play a rigid 4-4-2 formation and has some classy, technical players in midfield and attack.
The movement and ability of the Hungarians to find space in their flexible 4-1-4-1 formation was startling, particularly in the first hour. It was only when they changed to 4-4-2, with the introduction of Imre Szabics up front, that the game turned in our favour.
There were mitigating factors in the performance, like the weather, the heavy programme up to the game and the players’ desire not to pick up knocks so close to the tournament, but still it was troubling to see the numerous clear-cut chances created against what is, in Trapattoni’s opinion, our best team.
But I doubt there will be any change in Trap’s formation now, despite the usual mixed after-match messages on Monday. He will just demand a higher work-rate from the front and midfield men, which will be required for sure, along with a more compact unit combining the back four, middle and front.
Nothing other than that is in his vision for Irish football.
The good news, though, is that, Slaven Bilic has been a solid 4-4-2 man himself. Until now, any way. Even before the game in Budapest there had been suggestions that he would adapt his system against Ireland and play with a three-man advanced midfield, including Luka Modric behind a lone striker, perhaps Nikica Jelavic of Everton. As Bilic viewed our struggles against Hungary he might have been even more tempted to go that way.
Modric has been the creative and, at times, the defensive midfielder in a central pair with Tomislav Dujmovic of Dynamo Moscow. Backed up on the flanks by Ivan Rakitic and the experienced Darijo Srna, they’ve been a solid, well organised unit, but one that depends on Modric’s brilliance to make things happen. So the temptation will be huge for the Croatian coach to let Modric off the leash a little in a more advanced role to try to find those spaces and pockets between Ireland’s back four and our holding midfield players, Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. If that was the case, Srna, Modric and the adaptable Mario Mandzukic of Wolfsburg would provide a tricky positional test for us once again.
But listening to Bilic after our match in Hungary, his respect for our attacking unit of Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane was very clear. While he would have been enthused by seeing our defence dissected so regularly, he’s well aware of the threat of our front four.
For that reason I expect him to stick with his standard formation, one that was good enough to demolish Turkey 3-0 away in the first leg of the play-offs, their outstanding performance of the last few years.
Modric’s form will be the key to the Croats’ potential in this tournament and how we deal with him will seriously influence our fate. I fear Whelan and Andrews will not be quick enough, in mind or body, to handle him, but maybe with Duff, McGeady and a front man helping back we can limit his effect.
Strange as it may seem I don’t know if Trap would pick him if he was one of our own, judging by his lack of interest in Wes Hoolahan, Andy Reid and James McCarthy.
But Croatia don’t have any other truly exceptional players. Spurs’ Niko Kranjcar and former Arsenal man Eduardo are fine players, but their appearances have been less frequent of late. The loss through injury of Ivica Olic, though, might give Eduardo a chance after he was, like Jelavic, a sub in the play-offs against Turkey.
If Vedran Corluka is fit to start he can be an attacking threat from full back – and, like Srna, a threat too from set-pieces. But he lacks pace, as do fellow defenders Gordon Schildenfeld and Josip Simunic, and he makes some strange decisions. In their tame 2-0 defeat to Greece last October, both goals coming from corners, and their 3-1 loss to Sweden in February, they were quite ragged defensively. The experienced goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa is a weak link too, prone to error on crosses and poor on reading through balls.
So, there will be chances for Doyle and Keane, but we must not rely on long kick-outs or long diagonal passes from Richard Dunne or Seán St Ledger to try to construct them.
We must start moves by passing it from the back, when appropriate, to ensure McGeady and Duff are given the service that will allow them exploit those Croatian weaknesses, especially that lack of pace.
So what do I think? With the caution you get in opening games, I can foresee a draw. It would be a good if not a great start for us.
All three teams we face here are better than any we have played recently, with the exception of Russia – and we know what happened in those games. But I’m confident our team will sustain our interest in the group until the last game. And our passion should never be underestimated.